1. The Mermaid Chair - Sue Monk Kidd
Plot: A late-night phone call beckons a middle-aged woman back to her childhood home, where she discovers long-buried secrets and succumbs to temptation.
Gist: Discontented Jessie Sullivan blames her 20-year marriage for squelching her creativity and narrowing her world. When she's called to take care of her mother, she takes the opportunity to shed her husband and familiar life. The affair she begins with a soon-to-be-monk makes her feel alive, but can it satisfy her deepest longings?
2. No Place Like Home - Mary Higgins Clark
Plot: A girl who shot and killed her mother while trying to protect her finds herself in a maelstrom of emotion and intrigue.
Gist: "America's Queen of Suspense" shows once again that appearances are deceiving: A little girl seen by many as a murderess is victimized by her stepfather and would be victimized again but for the perceptiveness of a country prosecutor. Solid plotting and scene-setting, along with clean language, show why this 23rd Clark suspense novel continues her best-selling streak.
3. Revenge of the Sith - Mathew Stover
Plot: Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vadar) has to decide whether to trust the Jedi Order or the Lord of the Sith.
Gist: This novel will primarily interest Star Wars devotees, but it does show how pride and anger contribute to political corruption. As Obi-Wan Kenobi's fondness for Anakin leads him to overlook crucial faults, and as Anakin's love for his wife leads him toward the Dark Lord, a Buddhist theme concerning the dangers of emotional attachment becomes evident.
4. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
Plot: A curator at the Louvre is murdered, but before he dies leaves clues that send his granddaughter (a police cryptologist) and his colleague (a Harvard professor) on a search for the killer.
Gist: This goddess-worshipping conspiracy tale continues to sell (25 million copies to date) its weird theories of biblical interpretation and a profane premise: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and produced a daughter. Many new books expose this as nonsense.
5. Ya-Yas in Bloom - Rebecca Wells
Plot: Four lifelong friends, known as the Ya-Yas, cast huge shadows in the small Louisiana town in which they lived. Here are more episodes from their lives.
Gist: The Ya-Yas believe that rules are made for others. In the first book, Rebecca Wells was willing to show the dark side of their constant drinking and drama. But this book glosses over its main characters' flaws and embarks on an extended rant against Catholicism, Republicanism, and anyone who doesn't yield to the Ya-Yas' supposed charms.
In the spotlight
What is it with middle-aged women? Judging from some recent fiction, they are as unhappy and unfulfilled as Betty Friedan claimed 40 years ago. But they aren't reading feminist political manifestos. No, they're reading a mature version of chick lit, where the protagonists, as they hit the mid-century mark, find their lives bland. Discovering their authentic selves, the selves forgotten during long years of marriage, is portrayed as a high calling. Sometimes, the novels suggest, it takes an affair to liberate a woman from her emotional cocoon.
And what about her soul? Sorry, that must be another genre. Some books, like The Mermaid Chair and Elizabeth Buchan's The Good Wife Strikes Back, are well-written. But a steady diet of these and others, like The Botox Diaries by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger or The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble, are unlikely to produce contentment.